Bhuri’s Painting

Sketching at Nandu’s home

It’s a January morning in Jaipur. The early fog has not yet lifted and whilst it may be warm later, it certainly isn’t now, as we bump down the unmade road into the Garidharipura Slum. The lanes are comparatively empty, just a couple of cyclists and women carrying water. The smoke from breakfast fires mingles with the mist, though many here will go hungry for breakfast, they will all drink tea and the fires provide warmth.

My friend, film maker and photographer Lee Cantelon, and I are going to shoot an interview clip with one of our graduates, Nandu, for the short documentary we are making on the rough-and-ready school that is valiantly trying to educate some 350 kids from slums and squatter camps close by. I’ve been here over a week and my heart is full for these people and their struggles. The School seems an oasis of love in a desert of emptiness and scant hope. Life is very hard for these rag pickers and balloon sellers, these casual day-labourers and sometime beggars and their families. Their Caste and lack of education draw in their horizons and put a limit on dreams. Nandu is a success story in the making. Bright, handsome and personable, he is hoping for a career in the Navy. No one else in his family has ever graduated from any kind of school.

When we reach their home, set in a rubble strewn dip that must run with water in the monsoon, the whole family are waiting, wreathed in smiles. They have pulled a bed frame out into the space in front of the house so that we have something to sit on – they own no other furniture and do not want us to see inside their windowless shack.

Nandu’s mother, Bhuri, wrapped in a vivid pink blanket against the cold, squats by a shallow pit filled with glowing coals, warming both herself and a little girl who can’t be more than 3 years old. Nandu’s father, in a wooly hat and scarf, offers us piping hot chai. Sisters and aunts hover shyly in the background. You can see your breath. Despite this, they are proud we have come to their home, proud of Nandu and his education.

The chai is good, and as Lee films the interview sequence – Nandu talking about all that his education means to him and his family and how God has done a marvelous thing in his life – I draw mother and toddler crouched in the smoke. I am struck again by how these people, who have nothing, want to share their homes, their food and drink with strangers. How quick they are to smile with so little, apparently, to smile about. Bhuri has a smile that could melt a glacier, I catch it in a sly photograph.

And then we are done. Back into the small battered van before too many curious onlookers see our white faces and the cameras. We quickly leave this poverty behind. How blessed we are, with our full bellies, and comfortable homes to think of, and memories of these kind people to take back with us. In a few days I will be back in Canada, safe and secure, feeling the guilt of privilege.

Two weeks later, the email comes. Bhuri is dead, felled by a sudden heart attack. I look at my photographs of her, feel overwhelmingly sorry for her family and the boy, Nandu, who is my friend and immediately begin to paint that smile, what else can I do? When it is done I take it to the post office and mail it with love.

David and Nandu with Bhuri's portrait
David and Nandu with Bhuri’s portrait

Later, in December, Nandu greets me with open arms, his father is with him, they have both come to the small basement church some of the children from the School and their families attend despite opposition from their neighbours. They have brought my portrait of Bhuri with them so we can share it together. Lee takes the photograph you see here of a proud son with his smiling mother. It fills me up, to be here to see it and I’m freshly reminded why painting portraits can be such a great joy.


Portrait of Johnny Jonas by David Goatley

Everyone needs a hero. Not the kind in tights and capes, but someone out in front of them to admire and emulate, somebody who has already achieved the kind of things you are trying to get to. This is certainly true for artists.

When I first began painting I was inspired by Rembrandt, as I’ve said. I didn’t believe I could be Rembrandt – I’m not delusional – but I wanted him out in front of me like some kind of Grail. So, while he remained the unattainable goal to shoot for, I needed to pick someone as a first hero who was doing things I could maybe realistically achieve if I worked hard enough, things I could learn from to help me get started. I was very fortunate in meeting a real live artist – Johnny Jonas – who offered to show me ‘a few tricks’ and who was kind enough to encourage me to believe I could do what he did – even if, as I was to discover – it wasn’t as easy as he made it look. Johnny was my first hero and he remains a dear and valued friend to this day. He became a true mentor as well as a friend. I was lucky.

Portrait of a Woman by Johnny Jonas

What if you are not similarly fortunate in meeting someone like Johnny? Well, there are plenty of ‘how to’ books on portrait painting, some of them a little older now and perhaps not as easy to find in your local store, but they are out there if you search on line. Books by artists like John Howard Sanden, Everett Raymond Kinstler, Tom Coates, Burt Silverman, Chris Saper and so many more who have had wonderful careers and offer great practical tips and advice. If you are keen to develop as an oil painter, Richard Schmid’s book ‘Alla Prima – Everything I know about Oil Painting’ available at: is the Bible. Essential on any oil painter’s shelf. These are all terrific representational painters, living in the real world, who are themselves in awe of past masters like Rembrandt, Sargent and Velasquez, so the goals they set can seem more attainable and less impossible to ever reach.

Images of How To books - essential reading for new artists
Essential reading

Many of today’s successful artists offer instructional DVD’s rather than books and these are wonderful tools for learning. On DVD you can actually watch how they work, see them make their first decisions, mix colours and build the foundations of a portrait before bringing it to a wonderful conclusion. Everyone has a subtly different approach, a different choice of palette, prefers different brushes and so on. I find it’s wonderful to see as many as I can and learn from them all. There’s no one way of painting, no single formula, but there are fundamentals of drawing, tone, colour temperature and edge control that all these artists aim for, goals they would all agree on, even if they set out for them by different routes. Find what works for you.

Fortunately for all of us, many of today’s great portraitists offer workshops. These may be expensive to attend, hard to get into, and often far from where you live, but they can make a big difference in discovering the way forward. And how often do you get to be in the same room as a hero? I learned an enormous amount from a week with Burt Silverman when I was already 20 years into my career and would love to spend time in workshops with other of my heroes. There is always so much more to learn.

DVDs and books by portrait artist Burton Silverman
My Burton Silverman collection!

When I first started I looked at work I thought I just might be able to do if I practiced enough. As I got closer to those first targets, I found the goalposts shifted and I was looking at work that was tougher to match, techniques and skill sets that were further into the distance. New heroes. By trying to copy them, by experimenting with their materials, approaches and techniques I discovered things that worked for me and began to grow. I’m still doing it, still looking towards the gods on Mt. Olympus, still scrambling up the slopes, scraping my knees, but the example of those heroes keeps me climbing.

For the past 26 years I’ve also been teaching classes and workshops of my own, passing on all I’ve learned and growing further through the process. That so many people have wanted to learn from me is a big responsibility. Perhaps in my own small way I have may have been a bit of a hero to them and whilst I certainly don’t see myself that way, I am proud to be a part of the chain of learning through doing that goes all the way back through my heroes to the Masters of the past.

If I had said ‘It’s Rembrandt or bust’ right at the outset, I’d have doomed myself to a lifetime of disappointment, but by picking more mortal heroes I have managed to keep learning – and I hope I always will.